Boiled down to its essence, Aetheric Mechanics is a steampunk Sherlock Holmes mystery, but there is more to it than that. For starters, Warren Ellis has slightly changed all the familiar Holmesian tropes to make them his own. His detective is called “Sax Raker” and his physician sidekick is called "Richard Watcham". There are also thinly-disguised incarnations of Inspector Lestrade, Irene Adler, and Mrs. Hudson at hand, while characters sounding suspiciously like Moriarty and Mycroft Holmes are also mentioned in passing. Ellis hasn’t simply resorted to homage because he couldn’t or didn’t want to gain the permission of the Conan Doyle estate to use the real characters. There’s a very specific reason why everyone s not quite the way we remember them, but the truth behind that is just one of the many delights to be found in this most excellent one-shot from Avatar Press.
The year is 1907 and conflict between Britain and Ruritania (yes, that’s the fictional country from The Prisoner of Zenda) has broken out into open war across Europe. In this alternate world, the study of aetheric mechanics allows the flight of launches and spacefaring battleships via apergy engines and cavorite (yes, that's the antigravitic metal from The First Men in the Moon. Are we sensing a theme here?) rotors, among other technological marvels. As our tale opens, Dr. Watcham has been sent back to London from the front due to an injury. Having fulfilled his duty, he finds himself back to his familiar rooms -- we’re not actually told they’re at 221B Baker Street, but it’s fairly evident. Watcham finds Raker brooding in his study as usual, willfully oblivious to the political machinations of the greater world and instead focused like a laser on the latest sensational crime to hit London.
It seems that an invisible assailant who keeps popping in an out of existence has been accosting and even slaying prominent local scientists and engineers, and Watcham hasn’t even time to unpack his bags before the game is afoot once more. Like Sherlock Holmes, Raker is equally proficient at the solving of perplexing mysteries, but the answer at the root of this one is so mind-boggling that neither the characters nor the readers will ever see it coming.
The black and white artwork by Gianluca Pagliarani is mostly fantastic. He clearly takes pride in his craft and lavishes every page with a breathtaking amount of detail. His cityscapes and steampunkian contraptions are first-rate and one can literally spend five minutes taking in meticulous renderings of Raker’s study or the Disappearing Man’s underground lab. I have one nitpick about this book, however, and it’s a pretty big sticking point for me: I can’t stand how Pagliarani draws faces. Everyone in this story has a bulbous nose and slit reptilian eyes. If an artist has a weakness in any other area- say he can’t draw hands, or feet, or horses- I could overlook it to some extent, but as humans we identify so strongly with people’s faces and especially their eyes that’s it’s very disconcerting when every face has creepy eyes with tiny pinprick pupils. I almost feel like I’m reading about a race of snake people rather than human beings, which is a real disappointment because in every other way the art is first rate. I actually find myself resisting the impulse to white out all the eyes in this book and draw in wider, more reflective, more human-looking ones!
You have to admire the imagination and work ethic of Warren Ellis, an extremely prolific writer who seems to produce something like five different titles each and every month. Some of his books have weight to them, others seem like an idea he tossed off during a subway ride, but his comics are consistently entertaining. With Aetheric Mechanics, he is able to balance a fun adventure with some really dizzying existential conundrums that may lead to a shark-jumping moment for some readers, but I totally went with it and loved every zig and zag. Also, perhaps because this is a period piece, the overbearing sarcasm and cynicism which is a staple of Ellis characters is toned way down, which is to the story’s benefit. All told, this is one of the best books I’ve read all year, and well worth the purchase if you can find a copy.